In some ways the fact that the word 'impact' is used to represent the significance of an event or action is ominous. At a physical level all impacts are destructive, the reduction of one to many, or pristine to damaged. So when people speak of wanting to "make an impact", or to "leave an impression", as an ultimate life goal, doesn't it suggest a kind of selfishness? Even if the desire is to "make a difference", a slightly more twee formulation of the same yearning, it belies an insecurity about one's purpose or existence.
The idea of being remembered after your death is an immensely appealing one. Sure, most of us won't have invented penicillin or discovered a new element or painted a masterpiece, but those who knew us will miss us. That's something, right? And yet, who will remember you when they're gone too?
In the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, in central Florence's historic district, I was staring at an Etruscan urn that was nearly 2500 years old. An ashy black, its golden adornment had been masterfully applied. It was one of an amazing collection of artefacts, including a whole Egyptian wing, shaped with almost stupefying delicacy. How could something so beautiful be produced - nay, created - in a time more noteworthy for what was still to come than what had already occurred? And yet, the creator, the artist who went to incredible lengths to shape such a piece, is utterly lost to the world. His accomplishment lives on, for now, but without attribution. It was one several reminders of our impermanence in a day full of historical juxtaposition.
The Orto Botanico, the oldest botanic garden in the world, had doubled down on its selling point and filled its otherwise underwhelming array of plants with life-size dinosaur replicas. (I guess after nearly five hundred years of existence you earn the right to rest on your laurels, though it does boast another world record - the least secret secret garden in existence.) There is no situation in which 'life-size dinosaurs' doesn't automatically make a visit worthwhile. This principle applies too in the Museo di Geologica e Paleontologia, in which huge mammoth skulls and other dinosaur remains were unnervingly accessible to wandering hands despite a polite sign or two.
In the same scientific quadrant also stood the Museo di Mineralogia e Litelogia, which housed rare crystals and no patrons. I'd never been to a museum before where we were the sole attendees. The woman at the front desk certainly was surprised to see us. It was a fleeting visit and thanks to the invaluable Firenze Card (access to fifty museums over three days plus free public transport around the city for €50) we did not pay the €6 entry, but a blacked out room highlighting the radioactive luminescence of some minerals under UV light prevented it from being a complete wash. It's an unsexy field, at least compared to palaeontology, but there's something to be admired in the dedication.
After all, dedication isn't all that is required for success, or cultural immortality. If the samples of Brazilian tourmaline that no one was viewing are any indication - an accomplishment of exploration and excavation, I'm sure - it takes some unpredictable combination of timing and luck too. Of course, Galileo's many accomplishments are undoubtedly the product of hours of work, and much of it was on display in the fantastic Museo Galileo. What a mind he must have had. From obstetrics to optical illusions, parabolas to periscopes, the gallery was a shrine to the history of modern science (and not just his contributions, either). It was full of amazing wooden devices used to test theories on the laws of physics in respect of motion, electricity and more, plus hands-on recreations you could try yourself. The museum's rooms charted science and humanity's course from casualty of the elements to master of them.
On our first attempt at the Galleria dell'Accademia, the home to Michelangelo's David and thus swamped with tourists, the daunting lines diverted us towards the Botanic Garden. Our second swing, at 5pm, saw fewer in wait, and after fifteen minutes in the heat - still a stifling 37ºC - we were in. Sure, the David is the David (blah blah big statue, small dick, I get it), but buried in a side exhibition was an astonishing painting by Francis Bacon entitled Figure Sitting (The Cardinal). Bacon did a series of Pope portraits and this, a hunched figure, Joker smile and dark surrounds (wonderfully contextualised in this essay) was staggeringly beautiful and haunting. I tried to find an image of the specific piece online but failed, which is probably a good thing. Now that's how you make an impact - by connecting with, or even shattering, an unspoken truth in a person's existence.
Galileo, Bacon - these were men who were dedicated in their pursuit of a goal, be it knowledge or expression, and as a result changed the landscape of their field. If in two thousand years their achievements are still known, it will be not because they were trying to be remembered, but because they were not (and, really, only one of those is an 'if'). They will have overcome the two indignities most of us get to look forward to - ceasing to exist, and then, hopefully far later, ceasing to be remembered.